SOURCES OF ERRORS IN DOCUMENTS
Dr. Ursula Acosta
Many beginners in genealogical research have a tendency to take original sourcedocuments as the gospel truth. Unfortunately, original documents are not always reliable. In this brief article, I would like to give the reader several examples of what can go wrongwhen documents are written.
One of the problems is the carelessness of some priests who wrote the entries.
An example, well-known to Puerto Rican genealogists, is the first book of marriages and baptisms in Cabo Rojo during the late 18th century. Old Padre Roxas, the parish priest, not only entered both baptisms and marriages, into the same book, he also decided that itwas not necessary to write down the parents of the couples to be married! This was very common, even normal, in marriage registers of the Protestant churches in Europe until the 19th century because Protestant churches did not expressly forbid cousin marriages. In the Catholic church such marriages were not permitted, or at least required a special license. For this license to be given, the couple not only had to pay a fee, but had to prove their relationship. In order to do so, the genealogy of the two families involved had to beknown and this was only possible if the parents of the couples to be married were known. The Cabo Rojo case, therefore, is an aberration, not only a frustration to modern researchers.
Sometimes records were not entered! In my own genealogy, the marriage entry of my 2nd great grandparents does not appear. This couple had decided to get married in the hometown of the bride although the family of the bride had moved to the town of Cronenberg where both, bride and groom, were members of the local Lutheran church.There is an entry at the Cronenberg church giving the couple permission to marry in the town of Schwelm; the date is also registered. However, no church in Schwelm or surrounding towns has this marriage entry. As other documents indicate that the couple was legally married and civil registry did not exist at the time in the area of Schwelm, I can only assume that the minister forgot to enter the marriage. Obviously, I cannot prove this; it is not possible to prove a negative, but I have found no other explanation.
Often, priests confused names. In Cabo Rojo, the Colbergs insisted that the pirate Roberto Cofresi had been married to a Colberg. This is not true. Cofresí was married to a cousin of the Colbergs, Juana Cruytoff (Creitoff, in the modern spelling). This confusion arose because in one of the baptism records the priest mixed up the two names; he had written Colberg instead of Creitoff. I should mention that the priest should be excused for this error which is more understandable than many others that were made. Not only were the names Cofresí, Colberg and Creitoff very unusual foreign names for a Spanish priest,but the Colbergs and Creitoffs were also closely related, generally talked Dutch among themselves, and had immigrated together from Curacao.
Finally, the confusion of names can be the result of the use of several names for the same person. A Juan Francisco may have used Juan on one occasion and Francisco on another. Occasionally, a person who was born illegitimate, even if recognized by his or herfather, sometimes used the father’s and sometimes the mother’s surname.
A case in which the correct surname of a person cannot any longer be ascertained occurred in Cabo Rojo after the death of a friend (or servant) of
Francisco von Kupferschein (Cofresí), father of the pirate. This friend was Juan Balini, whose descendants later changed their name to Valines. Shortly after the death of
Juan Balini, a child by the name of Julián was born. We do not have his baptism record, but the record of his marriage to Faustina Ramos Velez of the 22nd October 1823 exists inCabo Rojo. In this record his name is given as Julián Cofresí Sanabria, son of
Francisco and Maria. However in later records he used interchangeably Valines and
Cofresí as his first surname and so did his children. One son called himself
Vicente Valines Ramos, while at least two of his daughters used Confersin Ramos.
Essentially, there are two possibilities; he may have been the last posthumous, son of
Juan Balini, and was raised by Cofresí; but it is also possible that Francisco Cofresí, a
widower at that time, and Maria Sanabria, a widow of Juan Balini, had a common-in
marriage of which Faustino was an off-spring.
Other entries are incorrect because the priest did not have the correct information. This is reflected in several modern records I have found and usually is the result of the fact that relatives or friends are often sent to the church to request the baptism of a new baby. Sometimes, when asked for the names, they simply get the names of the family members wrong and the priest, of course, writes the entry according to the information given.
In other cases, children were brought up by relatives and came to assume that
these relatives were their parents or just used the relative’s surname as their own. One of my husband’s uncles should be Ronda Rodríguez, but as his parents died when he was an infant and he was brought up by a maternal uncle, he has used the surname Rodríguez as his legal name all his life and had his children registered as Rodríguez, and not as Ronda,the genealogically and biologically correct surname.
In another case, a gentleman told me that I had researched his family correctly,
only that his great grandfather had been Anacleto, and not León. I rechecked the church records and still found León. Anacleto was a brother of León. We can only assume thatfor some reason the grandfather of this person had been brought up by his uncle, Anacleto, and had come to regard him as a father, or that the priest confused the two brothers when he entered the baptism record in question.
At the end of the 19th century, baptism records in Cabo Rojo were supposed to give the names of the grandparents of the child and marriage records the grandparents of the couple. However, there are many records indicating that the names of the grandparents were not known. Obviously, that was generally false. Most parents of a new-born know the names of their own parents and most brides and grooms know their grandparents. What may have happened was that person taking down the data did not ask all the questions he was supposed to ask and later, when the record was entered, information was missing. It was an easy way out to just write “se ignoran”.
Many marriage records have an entry referring to the consanguinity (blood relationship) of the couple. If the relationship is close, first or second cousin, we can be reasonably sure that the entry is accurate, but if the common ancestor was a 2nd great grandfather (tatarabuelo), we cannot always be sure that the consanguinity is stated correctly. Although many families did not know their ancestors over several generations, the further you go back in time, the higher the probability that mistakes were made. In other words, if you come across two records of the same family with conflicting information as to the consanguinity of the family members, it is likely that the older record, that is the one closer in time to the common ancestor, is correct unless other evidence says otherwise.
Until the emancipation of slaves (1873), the priests were supposed to write down the status of a person as white, black, slave, or “pardo libre” (free brown, used in the early centuries of the colonization generally for European-Indian mixtures, but in the 19th century, most persons who were neither white nor really black were called “pardo”). Occasionally, the terms “moreno” (brown) or mulatto were also used. As the reader may have noticed, these classifications mix biological and social concepts. The priests made many mistakes regarding the racial/social status of the members of their community.
a. Persons were entered in the wrong book.
b. Depending on the perception of the priest, the wrong term was
entered, especially in the case of “pardos” who were wealthy and
looked reasonably “white”.
c. If the priests had doubts as to the “race” of the person, especially of
newborns, they sometimes registered the entry in the “white” book,
but added the words of “of doubtful quality”.
Another problem with older records is the spelling of names, especially those of immigrants. This problem is often not due to carelessness of the priests or scribes, but to the fact that many immigrants were illiterate and could not spell their own foreign names to the priest who had to figure out a phonetic spelling. I have mentioned in other writings the case of the surname of the wife of Ciprian Colberg. Although the members of this particular family knew how to read and write, there is a surprising variety of the ways their names were spelled. The name of Colberg’s wife was Elisabeth Hoevertsz. Offhand, I can remember having seen the following spellings: Uvert, Ufert, Juferse, Hovers and, much harder to analyze, the spellings Dufrent and Ufret. While the former spellings are phonetic transcriptions of Hoevertsz, in both of the latter spellings, the “r” and “e” are transposed and in Dufrent a “D” was added, possibly following a pattern of some French names or the old custom of adding “de” to a surname. It should be added that the Dufrent-form was not used while the couple was alive.
Occasionally, misunderstanding could lead to surprising entries. Once I came across the hometown of an immigrant from Germany which as given as the “town of the two bridges”. I had no idea what they have been talking about until once, while driving on the autobahn, I saw a sign reading Zweibrücken, and suddenly I understood. The name of the city of Zweibrücken in Germany translates literally to “Ciudad de los dos puentes”!
Hopefully, this brief excursion into the problems of genealogical research will help newcomers to this type of work realize what obstacles may have to be overcome even though the source documents are at hand.
Article Extracted from El Boletín de la Sociedad Puertorriqueña de Genealogía VOL IX, NUM 1-2
Copyright 1998 – 2005 © Dr. Ursula Acosta
La Genealogía de Puerto Rico would like to thank
Dr. Urusla Acosta for allowing us to present her article here.